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Bringing Keats to the Big Screen

posted: 11.8.09 by archived

It can be a treat when talented directors decide to bring poets and their poetry to the big screen. In the recent past, the focus has been on 20th century poets—think of Sylvia (2003) on Sylvia Plath, Il Postino (1994) on Pablo Neruda, and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) on Dorothy Parker.  The imaginative 1998 Shakespeare in Love, which drew on real characters and plays, was entertaining but largely fictional.

This September, New Zealand director Jane Campion (The Piano, An Angel at My Table) brought us a biopic about  John Keats (1795 – 1821), one of the most romantic of the later Romantic poets.  Bright Star dramatizes the love affair between Keats and his Hampstead neighbor Fanny Brawne.  Campion decided to make the movie lush in image and sound, heavy with emotion, and short on Keat’s social life. (No Charles Lamb. No Percy Bysshe Shelley. None of that set.)

This, as some reviews have said, was a smart movie. Since Keats was such a rich character, his life offers too many channels to explore in one feature-length movie. And it was clever of Campion to deliver Keats’s exquisite poems on the stream of an intoxicating love affair. General movie goers may not have known of Keats, and general students of poetry may not have known of the affair. The result: more poetry for all.

Fanny, played by the milk-skinned Abby Cornish, begins as a spirited seamstress and designer stitching fantastic stand-up collars and intricate pleated skirts. Keats, played by Ben Whishaw, is whimsical, serious, and thin, nursing his ailing brother Tom.  Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), Keats’s rascally friend and quasi-benefactor, triangulates the love affair,  his jealousy growing in pace with the couple’s affections.

While the movie’s  lupin- and daffodil-filled fields and the blossoms of English spring are dazzling, even better is Whishaw’s reading of Keats. At the screening I attended, everyone stayed for the final credits in order to listen to the entirety of Whishaw reading “Ode to a Nightengale.”  (You can hear a brief excerpt here [click “download”].)

(Caleb Crain, writing in the On Language column in the New York Times last Sunday, muses on Keats’s language and some of Campion’s language choices for Bright Star.)

The film wasn’t a total success for me since the lovesick pining followed by howling grief became hard to sit through. I also would have liked to have seen more of Keats’s life in poetry and I was dismayed that Fanny’s proud sewing was reduced to mere stitching as she became more besotten—but perhaps that’s just the reality of  first love. (I’m comforted by the fact that she did not end her days traipsing the heaths of Hampstead reciting poetry, as the film says, but rather went on to marry and have a family.)

It was a pretty picture that leaned more in the direction of a love story than a cinematic-literary masterpiece.

An informal poll around the office finds opinions on poet biopics are pretty low. They suffer from “heavy-handed miserablism”  or are “a collection of pious platitudes masquerading as courageous” delivered by “bloviating and gesticulating” characters. (Watch for future posts here by these two passionate writers.)


1. Do biopics help make poets and their poetry more approachable for students? Or do their efforts to appeal to the mainstream turn students off? How do you manage student responses?

2. Which biopics work best in your classroom? How do you assign them?

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Creative Writing, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature
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One Response to “Bringing Keats to the Big Screen”

  1. Alexis Walker, Bedford St. Martin's Says:

    I might be in the minority here, but I thought TOM AND VIV (about T.S. Eliot and his wife) was very good. I showed it in class once to my students (though in a biography course, not a poetry course), and they were pretty deeply affected by it.